Viewers who find Hurlyburly one of the most weirdly annoying movies they've seen--which is likely--will probably locate different "last straws" in the self-indulgent bundle of hay that has been made from David Rabe's grueling 1984 play. For me, it was watching Eddie (Sean Penn) stretched out beneath a glass coffee table in his Hollywood Hills home, spouting Rabe's tortured narcissistic dialogue. The camera is positioned above the table and behind Artie (Garry Shandling) as he leans forward and does line after line of cocaine over Penn's wracked face. At this point, I wanted to fire a few rounds into my television set (I had a review copy).
On paper, it sounds like a pretentious but not overwhelming shot, maybe even a little cinemagraphic braggadocio that's been earned by a cast that includes Penn, Shandling, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Robin Wright Penn, and Anna Paquin. But somewhere during a creative process that included director Anthony Drazan, co-screenwriter Rabe, the painterly director of photography Changwei Gu (Farewell My Concubine), and maybe, just maybe, all those marquee egos with so much mouth-stretching stage dialogue among them, a dissolution occurred. Hurlyburly scatters into a million prickly monologues and duets that are given unnecessary and distracting contexts by Drazan and Changwei: the glass coffee-table shot; arguments carried on via cell phones while the characters swoop across Los Angeles; long tirades on rooftops and along nighttime roadsides. The audience is simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by what the movie-industry freaks in Rabe's play are yammering on about. The movie finally achieves a cumulative effect, but it's as a seven-star pileup of "big scenes" that are insufferable.
Eddie and Mickey (Spacey) are housemates and professional colleagues, Hollywood casting directors with enough money to secure all the cocaine and women they want but not enough clout to snag the big projects. Eddie's a worrywart who has retained a sliver of heart, just enough to hate himself and yearn for something better both professionally and romantically. Mickey is a peroxide-rinsed viper whose forked tongue is given to withering semantic discourses on the difference between "sarcasm" and "being flip." They seemingly share everything: a house, women, and friends like a volatile big-lug TV actor named Phil (Palminteri) and Artie, a producer who is probably more successful and more insecure than all of them.
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Hurlyburly the movie, just like Hurlyburly the stage play, consists of this quartet's alternately building each other up and tearing each other down as they try to identify some satisfaction in their jobs and their love lives using David Rabe's seriocomic philosophical chatter. Occasionally, the melee stops, the velvet rope is pulled aside, and invited into this vitriolic boys' club is the stray woman, sometimes reasonably confident if romantically foolhardy (Robin Wright Penn as Darlene, a photographer and Penn's best hope for salvation). But mostly the women are lost and scrambling for salvation themselves. Among them are Bonnie (Meg Ryan), a dancer famous for her blow jobs who doesn't mind performing them in the presence of her 6-year-old daughter, and Donna (Anna Paquin), a teenage runaway Shandling finds in a Hollywood elevator and delivers to Penn and Spacey as a care package.
One problem with Hurlyburly is that Rabe's play--produced off-Broadway 15 years ago with a cast that included William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, and Sigourney Weaver--feels, if not exactly dated, then redundant. Since that New York production, filmmakers such as David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, and Neil LaBute among others have slapped us till we're numb with ironic depictions of misogynists. (Strangely, the actresses in Drazan and Rabe's film don't appear degraded; Wright's character is pitched more intelligently and sympathetically than the ditz in Rabe's original play, and in Ryan's case, the dignity she emanates borders on the absurd.) While less overwrought direction would certainly make the movie more coherent, it might highlight even further that Rabe's descendants have examined insulated male heterosexual desire ad nauseam in the time between his play and its movie version.
But Drazan wasn't content with respectable filmed-play mediocrity; he had to remind us how out-of-control he could be with elements from both media. Drazan never stops pounding the chest and blasting breath into the lips of Hurlyburly with his fast and pointless atmospheric effects, perhaps inspiring some of his actors to flail away similarly at Rabe's words. Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn attack scenes that Rabe intended as comic (if bleakly so) as if they were competing for the last spot in an Actor's Studio class. Penn is still the most fluid of living American character actors, which makes it all the sadder when a filmmaker traps his oily flow in buckets of cinematic gimmickry.
Written by Anthony Drazan and David Rabe, from the play by Rabe. Directed by Drazan. Starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Garry Shandling, Robin Wright Penn, Anna Paquin, and Meg Ryan. Opens Friday.